Funny money: Britain's jokers are cashing in

Comedians – not rock stars – are selling out some of the biggest venues in the country. Andrew Johnson reports on a joke boom

It is one of the most eagerly awaited shows of the year. Flash bombs, dry ice and thousands of screaming fans will greet him as he steps on to some of the biggest stages in the country.

But there will be no opening blast of drums. This is not the Stones, just a chubby bloke from Bolton, cracking jokes about garlic bread and smashing sales records with his first live tour in seven years. The biggest selling live tour in Britain this year is not a superannuated rock band but Peter Kay's 90-date Tour That Doesn't Tour Tour, which has sold more than 750,000 tickets and includes 35 nights in Manchester alone. The manager of the Manchester Evening News Arena in the city described Kay's tour as the "the biggest arena tour by anybody, ever, in this country".

Kay is leading a phalanx of comedians who are selling vast numbers of live tickets this year. The ticketing giant Ticketmaster said tickets for his coming tour is their biggest selling act of the financial year. Comedian Michael McIntyre was their fourth biggest act. Geoff Huckstep, the chief executive of Nottingham Arena, said McIntyre sold out five nights in the 10,000-seat venue in record time. "There's massive demand for comedy," he said. "To sell five nights like McIntyre did is incredible; it was faster than Kings of Leon."

The Irish comedian and host of Mock the Week, Dara O'Briain, who is in the middle of a 150-date tour, said: "Peter Kay and Michael McIntyre are bringing in an audience who haven't previously thought to go to a comedy show, and maybe that's having a knock-on effect. It may also be because suddenly there are far more comedians coming up, and they are being given exposure on panel game shows which are repeated all the time on the television channel Dave, so they don't have to spend years and years gigging as someone like Eddie Izzard did."

Michael McIntyre

The pretender to Kay's throne. His DVD Live and Laughing was the fastest selling debut comedy DVD. He won best stand up at the 2009 British Comedy awards and banked about £8m. He says: "When you look at a wine list, it's utter gibberish. So ignore the name of the wine and look at the price only, then point."

John Bishop

Scouse, working-class comedian started stand-up in 2000 and will draw around 180,000 people to his shows this year. A pilot BBC show, John Bishop's Britain, could propel him into the very big time. He says: "If you're in your forties and wearing trainers and jeans, it makes you look a bit like a responsible adult should be holding your hand."

Shappi Khorsandi

Iranian-born stand-up who's been on the circuit for 10 years is one of the few female comedians to break through. She says: "Usually when I get on stage, men go 'Oooh, that's a bird!', and I have to explain to them that there are some women that get on stage without a pole."

Eddie Izzard

The marathon-running veteran comic is a pioneer of the arena circuit. His tour last year helped him to make £3m. He says: "The National Rifle Association says: 'Guns don't kill people, people do,' but I think the gun helps. Just standing there going 'Bang!' isn't going to kill many people. Unless your heart's really dodgy; then it might."

Frankie Boyle

Straight-talking, expletive-spouting, angry man of comedy. Boyle was the star of Mock the Week and his biography My Shit Life So Far was a surprise bestseller last year, helping him earn £2m. He says: "The Tories have said they want to make more prison ships. Surely, if you put prisoners on ships, you're only going to create more pirates."

Jimmy Carr

Sharp-suited, clean-cut English gent who whacks audiences with his dry and caustic wit. Often to be seen as the link on those clip shows such as the 100 best TV moments. He will play to about 300,000 this year and earned about £5m in 2009. He says: "In Pizza Hut you can get garlic bread with cheese and tomato. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but that's a pizza."

Peter Kay

The cheeky-faced Boltonian is the current king not only of comedy but of live entertainment. His DVD and book sales alone in 2008 earned him £4.5m. He says: "I was bullied at school, called all sorts of names. But one day I turned to my bullies and said, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,' and it worked. From there on, it was sticks and stones all the way."

Russell Howard

The Mock the Week regular earned £4m last year. He says: "There were MPs claiming for moats, tennis courts, swimming pools, and they all claimed: 'It's legal!' So is waking your Nan up dressed as Hitler. But you don't do it."

Dara O'Briain

Big-framed Irish funny man and host of Mock the Week is on a 150-date tour that will help make up for the 40 per cent pay cut from the BBC. He says: "I never have cash in my wallet, just months and months of receipts. Really I need a mugger who can file my VAT returns."

Jenny Eclair

The first woman to win the Edinburgh Fringe comedy award has become a staple on BBC2's Grumpy Old Women. She says: "Sometimes I see a baby and think: 'That's what I want, a baby.' Then I see a pair of shoes and I think, 'No, have the shoes instead.'"